Charlotte Country Club’s F&B success hinges on the dynamic relationships between its chefs.
It’s a match made in culinary heaven: John Cornely, the savvy and skilled Executive Chef at Charlotte Country Club (CCC), and James Satterwhite, the club’s experienced and meticulously driven Executive Pastry Chef. They are one of the industry’s most dynamic culinary teams—and together, with the help and support of the other key managers and staff at CCC, they have big plans for the club’s $5.7 million F&B operation.
Savory Taken Seriously
Cornely mans the savory side of the operation. He’s been with CCC since December of 2002, first as Executive Sous and then, eight months later, as Executive Chef. Since taking the top spot, he’s helped the operation to evolve substantially.
“I had a very good rapport with the staff when I was promoted and already had some ideas about what I wanted to change,” says Cornely, who studied at Johnson & Wales and then worked in a number of country and city clubs, as well as public restaurants, before arriving at CCC.
“I had full support from our CEO, Damon DiOrio, which allowed me to take ownership of the kitchen,” Cornely adds. “I promoted and hired a couple of cooks and restructured to better balance out responsibilities. Everyone on the new F&B team was excited and eager to move the club forward.”
Charlotte Country Club
AT A GLANCE
Location: Charlotte, N.C.
No. of Kitchens: 3
Clubhouse Size: 50,000 sq. ft.
In 2007, CCC embarked on a massive, two-year, $20.7M clubhouse restoration (see “Inside Charlotte CC’s Historic Clubhouse Renovation”). Completed in 2009, the project both modernized and fully restored the historic architecture of the 1931 clubhouse. It also improved many back-of-house spaces—including kitchens—that had posed some serious challenges to Cornely and his team.
“It was exciting to build a kitchen the way we wanted and the way we knew it would be most efficient,” says Cornely.
Strength in Numbers
Armed with a stunning new facility and a full membership base, Cornely began to improve operational aspects, such as the efficiencies of the kitchen and the caliber and quality of the food.
“My cooking philosophy is super simple and kind of cliché: When you buy great ingredients, the flavors speak for themselves,” he says. “But it’s what drives us and has since the beginning.”
This philosophy inspired Cornely to begin a purchasing department in 2010 that has since grown to include far more than F&B.
“When I first hired Keith Svagr as Purchasing Manager, I basically told him that he would only be working for the culinary side of the operation,” says Cornely. “We were fortunate because he had some F&B background and was immediately able to find us the best value on many of our ingredients and products. He also understands that quality is paramount, and sometimes that means we have to pay more for certain things.”
As he excelled in his new role with the support and guidance of Cornely and other managers at the club, Svagr began taking on more purchasing responsibilities, first for non-alcoholic beverages, then alcoholic. Today, he’s doing nearly all the purchasing for the club.
“With a dedicated purchasing person, everything is more streamlined and efficient throughout the club,” says Cornely.
How Does Your Garden Grow
Cornely’s efforts to not only elevate his food, but himself, continue to pay off, as the club’s F&B revenues have consistently climbed by 10% year after year.
This summer, Cornely’s focus on quality inspired him to set up a greenhouse for micro greens—in his office, no less—and build a chef’s garden beside the pool and tennis complex.
“The initial idea to do the micro-greens actually came from [Svagr],” says Cornely. “We were spending a lot of money on micros and he thought we should try to grow them ourselves.”
Cornely agreed and reached out to the club’s horticulturist for help. Together they found the right system and began planting. Within five days, the first greens were being harvested—but not before some unexpected (and stinky) surprises.
“Growing organically is really important to me and the members,” says Cornely. “What I didn’t realize was how much the dirt would smell. It’s basically made of fish and seaweed. I planted everything on a Sunday afternoon and came back to my office on Tuesday. When I opened the door, the smell almost knocked me over.”
Stench aside, the microgreens project will likely pay for itself in just a few more months, as the light kit cost about $500 and the shelves and seeds cost another $240. (Cornely has accepted that his office might not smell like roses, but with an open window, it’s manageable.)
CCC’s new outdoor garden is also flourishing, thanks to the team effort between F&B and agronomy.
“The agronomy department helped us when we were laying the groundwork for the 16’x16’ bed,” says Cornely. “Once it was built, we planted some herbs—cilantro, sage, thyme, rosemary, mint, chives and basil—and some heirloom vegetables like watermelon, jalapenos, radishes, and tomatoes. We also planted some edible flowers.”
The Poet of Pastry
Six years ago, CCC’s pastry chef left the club and Cornely saw an opportunity to transform that part of the operation. But first he needed to find the right person.
“At the time, we were buying a lot of product instead of making it in-house,” says Cornely. “When our pastry person left, I went to our CEO and explained how I wanted to up our game, but that I needed his support and the support of the Board to find a superstar Pastry Chef. They were behind me 100%. And then we found James.”
When Satterwhite interviewed for the position, he wowed Cornely with his passion, skill and experience with five-star, five-diamond hotels, resorts and restaurants, and was hired immediately.
“I had offers from a number of other operations, but what sold me on CCC was the pastry shop,” says Satterwhite. “It wasn’t in great shape, but it had a lot of potential. I’m experienced enough to know that if a kitchen isn’t right and can’t become right, you’ll always be looking for something else. I knew this was the place for me.”
It also helped knowing that Cornely, the club’s management and the Board were all supportive of Satterwhite’s role and the things he wanted to do with the pastry program.
“I moved three months before my family relocated,” says Satterwhite. “So I basically worked 80 to 100 hours those first few weeks, cleaning the kitchen and rearranging the shop. Because I was completely rebuilding the program, I rolled out a brand new menu within a week, and began implementing new standards around the shop.”
At that time, Satterwhite’s only staff member was Noe Salinas, Pastry Cook, who had been with the club for 14 years at the time (and is still there today).
“He’s a phenomenally kind person and we wouldn’t be where we are without him,” says Satterwhite. “He pushed back a bit at first, but when he understood the vision and realized how much he could learn and what all we were going to do, he was on board completely.”
Since that time, Satterwhite and his team have transformed the pastry operation to the point where nearly everything is now made from scratch—including the ever-changing 18 flavors of ice creams and sorbets that are made available daily, plus cakes, cookies, brownies, breads and much, much more.
The Making of a Menu
“My goal is to change the a la carte dessert menu every month,” says Satterwhite, who also sets up monthly challenges for himself and his staff—like 2017’s “cherry challenge,” for which he plans to have one cherry-based dessert on every single menu.
“There’s no menu like a new menu, and with members who eat with us three or four times a week, it’s important to keep it fresh,” he says. “It’s also important to keep the staff engaged and inspired, so these little challenges can be a lot of fun.”
CCC’s a la carte pastry menu features four to five full desserts, three small-plate desserts, and a shareable platter that is basically a five-item sampling of specialty desserts, dreamed up by Satterwhite, which change weekly.
“Listening to what our members want and watching their purchasing patterns has been critical to our success,” Satterwhite adds.
CCC’s pool and golf snack bars are perfect examples of this.
When Satterwhite came to CCC, the pool featured cookies and brownies, and not much more. With a strong background in ice cream, he saw the opportunity to offer a full menu of housemade, hand-dipped flavors. It was an instant success, and sales skyrocketed. Fast forward to today, and CCC’s pool snack bar now features ten different flavors of ice cream and a build-your-own sundae option, as well as two different homemade ice cream sandwiches—“funfetti” and chocolate chip.
Meanwhile, at the golf snack bar, the club was selling scones, muffins, brownies and a number of different cookies. None of it was very high quality, and members weren’t buying.
“The golf snack bar is an interesting study in less being more,” says Satterwhite, who evaluated sales, then trimmed the menu down to a smaller selection of higher-quality homemade cookies, a better brownie, a rice krispie treat and some house-made granola bars. “Sales are much better,” he reports. “These items move, and the members are much more satisfied.”
All for One
As they demonstrated in their presentation on “Pastry for All Purposes” at the 2017 Chef to Chef Conference in Atlanta, Cornely and Satterwhite have a strong working relationship. They support and encourage each other, inspire and push one another, and collaborate for the greater good of the club, their teams and themselves.
“The relationship I have with [Cornely] is the most important one that I have in my working life,” says Satterwhite. “If there’s a problem, I know that I can count on his help, support and guidance, and vice versa. Together, we’re able to stay positive because we’re both equally invested in the success of the club. He can’t do what I do, and I can’t do what he does—but together, we’re unstoppable.”
“Before coming to CCC, I worked as a pastry chef for five years,” says Cornely. “I have a great deal of respect for the work [Satterwhite] does. He is massively skilled and incredibly smart. He understands ingredients, the process and what it takes. He is patient and creative. We’re good friends, but we can also disagree and work through those times, because we’re both seeking the best solution.”
Both Satterwhite and Cornely take great care in teaching and grooming their respective staffs. Satterwhite won’t hire a cook who doesn’t dream of becoming a pastry chef. Meanwhile, Cornely goes above and beyond to ensure that his team understands not only how to do a task correctly, but why it’s important as well. This means breaking down whole hogs, cleaning fresh artichokes for wine dinners, and having Svagr go through the dry-storage area with sticky notes, labeling the price of each ingredient.
“The staff, and the relationships we have with one another, are what make everything possible here at CCC,” says Satterwhite. “When everyone is on the same page and working toward the same goals, we thrive.”
Making the Transition
In April of 2017, Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club’s longtime Chief Executive Officer, Damon DiOrio, announced that he was leaving the club and moving on to Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz. Right after DiOrio’s announcement, the club’s Chief Financial Officer, Dee Anna Clarke, also gave notice.
“It was a shock, but [Director of Club Operations] Arnaldo Cocuzza, myself and the other key managers stepped up to ensure the success of the club as we go through this major management transition,” says Executive Chef John Cornely. “It’s been all hands on deck.”
Cornely has been steady through the transition and open with his staff. Communication has been important. He’s also been very visible to the membership, so they know they can come to him if a problem arises.
After DiOrio’s announcement, Charlotte CC hired a search firm to find a new GM. Once the field was narrowed to two candidates, each came to the club to meet with its managers. Ultimately, Fred Fung, who was previously with Bonita Bay Club (Naples, Fla.), was offered the position.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for [DiOrio] and all that he was able to accomplish here,” says Cornely. “But as we move forward, we will need someone who can bring something new to the table. [Fung] gets the service and the financial side of the operation. He’s very intentional in his actions. I believe he will be a great fit and a strong leader.”
During the interview process, Fung was clear in expressing his support and empowerment of Cornely, Satterwhite and their teams.
“We have a tenured professional staff and we are all very good at our jobs,” says Cornely. “It’s been strange not having those upper-management positions filled, but our ability to serve our members hasn’t faltered. And we’re all very excited about what the future holds.”